If you’ve watched any Brooklyn Nets games this season, you know that they are not a good team. Heck, even if you haven’t watched a single game, you know they aren’t good. It certainly doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to see that the Nets currently have the NBA’s worst record at 10-49. That’s nine wins behind the Lakers and the Suns. How sad is that?! The Lakers and Suns, who are both terrible and rebuilding, have nearly twice as many wins as the Nets do.
While Nets fans have had to endure this pitiful season, all while knowing that the Celtics will have the Nets’ pick (thanks, Billy King!), there has been at least one little, shining glimmer of hope. That glimmer comes in the form of rookie guard Caris LeVert. Now, the Nets have a few young players to get excited about. Among LeVert, they also have fellow rookie guard Isaiah Whitehead and second-year forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Whitehead has played a lot of minutes over the past couple months with Jeremy Lin out with a hamstring injury and has flashed a lot of potential, but his numbers aren’t great. He’s only averaging 7.3 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game. Like I said, his numbers are unimpressive, but he’s passing the “eye test”. At 6’4 and 213 lbs., he’s got great size for a combo guard in the NBA. He’s also displayed the type of athleticism that the Nets haven’t had at the guard position since Vince Carter was still around. Whitehead just needs some time to develop. He may not become a starting caliber point guard in the NBA, but he could be a great “sparkplug” off the bench.
Hollis-Jefferson is probably the Nets’ second-most important player for the future of the franchise. The Nets shipped center Mason Plumlee to the Portland Trail Blazers in order to take Hollis-Jefferson with the 23rd pick of the 2015 NBA Draft and it was arguably one of the best moves Billy King ever made. Hollis-Jefferson was an immediate starter in his rookie year and almost instantly brought the Nets the athleticism, energy, and defense they sorely lacked. Like Whitehead, Hollis-Jefferson’s impact doesn’t show on the stat sheet. So far, in his 84 career games (44 starts), Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 7.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.5 blocks, and 1.1 steals in 21.6 minutes per game while shooting 43.4% from the floor. Those numbers aren’t bad, and this year has been better than last, but Hollis-Jefferson is certainly a player who is trending upward. It should be noted that in his ten games in February, he averaged 9.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, all while playing just 23.7 minutes per game and shooting a highly efficient 54.7% from the floor. The stats also don’t show Hollis-Jefferson’s impact on the defensive end. He’s an excellent defender, using his superior athleticism and ridiculous length (7’1” wingspan at 6’7”) to lock down opposing wings and power forwards. He’s also still just 22 years old and certainly a piece for the Nets to build around.
Now that we have some background on a couple of the other Nets’ youngsters, let’s get to the real budding star of this team: Caris LeVert. Ok, maybe not “budding star”, but you know what I mean. This kid is going to be good someday. Look no further than his game from Wednesday night against the Kings. It was just the third start of his young career and he played just 25 minutes, but he put up and incredibly efficient 13 points (6/9 from the floor, 1/1 from three). I know that’s not a lot of points, but it was the way he scored that was impressive. He showcased his ability to score in several different ways.
His first bucket came at the 7:14 mark of the first quarter. It was a simple floater in the lane after getting a nice screen from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. His next shot happened just 24 seconds later as he dropped in a wide open three from the right corner on a fast-break. It’s not like that was a difficult shot by any means, but being able to consistently hit open threes is a must in today’s NBA. He went scoreless in the second quarter.
In the third quarter of this game, he made a few highly impressive plays. The first one came at the 9:39 mark, when he followed up a miss by Hollis-Jefferson with a nice tip-in. This showed that LeVert not only was smart enough to follow up his teammate on a fast break, but also athletic enough to go up, get the rebound, and immediately put it back in. A couple possessions later, he anticipated a Darren Collison pass, stepped in the lane, and took it the other way for an easy dunk. This play showcased his ability to get into passing lanes and create turnovers on defense and turn them into easy buckets.
His next play was arguably the most impressive. With 5:46 left in the third quarter, LeVert caught the ball at the three-point line, drove in at the defending Collison, then stopped on his pivot foot at the free-throw line, spun around and hit a beautiful jumper over Collison, reminiscent of Kobe Bryant in his day. His final shot came with 3:30 left in the game, when he took a handoff from forward Trevor Booker and drove past Kings’ guard Tyreke Evans for an easy layup.
These plays all came in one game and he’s had plenty of other exciting moments during his rookie year, but these are just some examples of what he is capable of. He also achieved a career high seven rebounds and tied a career high with three steals in the same night, displaying his all-around ability.
LeVert has nearly everything you’d want in a franchise player. He played at Michigan for four years before the Nets traded Thaddeus Young in order to pick LeVert with the 20th pick of the 2016 draft. LeVert was coming off of his second foot surgery is as many years, but the Nets took a chance on him because they knew that the potential reward was worth the risk. Many NBA draft analysts had LeVert has a lottery pick before the injury.
Watching him play now, you can see why. He has the ideal size for an NBA guard at 6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan. He could add some muscle to his 203 lb. frame, but that’s something he can focus on this offseason as long as he’s healthy. He’s also a freakish athlete. Watching him on fast-breaks, you can easily take notice of it. He flies down the court like a gazelle. He just has that easy athleticism that you love to see in a young guard. He can use this athleticism and length to become an excellent defender as well. He’s already been tasked to guard some of the league’s premier perimeter players and he’s done a solid job of it. He’s also shown a knack for getting steals and forcing turnovers by getting in passing lanes and stripping opposing ball handlers.
Now, on to his offensive skills. His athleticism will bode well for him on this end of the floor, especially on fast-breaks. As he gets stronger, he’ll have no problem using his speed and explosiveness to blow by defenders and get to the rim. He just needs to add a little muscle to be able to take contact at this level.
He’s also a pretty good ball handler. He played a lot of point guard in his last couple years at Michigan and averaged 4.9 assists a game in his senior season. He’s shown excellent vision so far in the NBA, especially on the pick-and-roll. He isn’t an ideal starting point guard because of his height, length, and skill set, but he could be a great secondary ball handler. In Wednesday’s game, the Nets allowed him to be the primary ball handler in the final couple minutes of a tight game, showing that Kenny Atkinson trusts him despite his lack of experience. Unfortunately, LeVert had a late turnover, as he attempting to drive to the basket, he was stripped of the ball, but it was by a secondary defender so it wasn’t entirely his fault. These types of rookie mistakes should allow him to grow as a player, though, and it’s great that Atkinson his giving him these opportunities.
LeVert is also a pretty good shooter. He was incredibly accurate in senior year at Michigan, as he hit 44.6% of his three’s and shot 50.6% from the floor. Unfortunately, his shooting ability hasn’t transferred to the NBA just yet as he’s shooting just 42.9% from the floor and 30.5% from three, but it takes time for rookies to adjust. I think by the end of the year, he’ll start getting a better feel for his shot.
If I had to make a comparison for LeVert to a current NBA star, it’d be a mix of Giannis Antetokounmpo (believe it or not, I can spell his name without looking it up) and Gordon Hayward (whose last name I spelled incorrectly before looking it up). I think he’s more like Antetokounmpo in terms of his athleticism, length, and passing ability, but he’s not quite as athletic. He’s also a more well-rounded shooter than Antetokounmpo, which leads me to throwing in Hayward to the comparison. LeVert compares favorably to Hayward because they have a more similar size and shooting ability, but Hayward isn’t quite as long or athletic. Also, both Antetokounmpo and Hayward started their careers slowly, and for struggling teams, only to improve each year of their careers and eventually develop into legitimate star players. I think LeVert has that type of potential; it just may take some time for him to live up to it.
The Nets aren’t going anywhere. Former GM Billy King ruined this team by gutting them of most of their own draft picks until 2019 and using them to acquire players who are all past their primes and no longer with the team. However, new GM Sean Marks has shown that he isn’t afraid to take risks and do what he can to make this team better without mortgaging any more of their future. By taking a chance on LeVert, he’s given the fans of this team something to watch during an unbearable season and given them hope for the future.